When I first started building affinity groups, there was a lot of immediate success. The prospective donor pool was like fish in a barrel, as if they were all just there together, idly waiting to be reeled in. Early on, when a prospective member agreed to take a call to discuss the program, there was a 90% chance he or she would join. It certainly was a success, though I didn't understand why.
Then one day a colleague and I were talking about how difficult it is to build a culture of philanthropy where there isn't one. The university we work is heavily tuition-driven and philanthropy wasn't pursued as a source of revenue. It was a kind gesture for someone to leave our organization in their estate, or to start a scholarship, but we weren't asking for it. (I cringe now at how things used to be.) Other gift officers were struggling to get a meeting with any prospective donor. Then my colleague turned to me and said, "You know, Jenni, the only reason you're having so much success is because you're inviting all these people to join your cool club." Oof, that hurt. My ego was insulted that she didn't think the success was because of me! Here I was, this unbelievably amazing development officer (insert eye roll), and she wasn't giving me any credit! Well... come to find out, she wasn't wrong.
The best marketing strategy for soliciting members to join our affinity programs is *ahem, your cool club. This doesn't mean that your members will walk around in black leather, T-bird jackets like Danny Zuko. But it does mean that you're creating a community. In his book Belonging to the Brand: Why Community is the Last Great Marketing Strategy, author Mark Schafer distinguishes three special qualities of a community:
Connection to each other. Like friends in a neighborhood, members of a community know each other and communicate with each other, either in a real-life setting or online. There is a connection felt between members and a collective feeling of difference from individuals who do not belong to the community.
Purpose. Like-minded people gather in a community because they have a shared reason for being there. Shared rituals and traditions strengthen the sense of group identity and allow members to bond over common values.
Relevance. A community will dissolve if its purpose becomes irrelevant. A thriving community pivots and adjusts to the times and needs of its members while maintaining its core values.
For your program to be the most successful it can be, you need all three of these community-like qualities. You may be wondering how you're supposed to accomplish all this. The good news is: you're setting the table and it's up to your members to take a seat and engage. In the Affinity Maker Fundraising Blueprint, I recommend two virtual meetings and one in-person meeting per year. If your donors are all local, you may want to meet in-person twice a year and once virtual. Either way, you're bringing them together on a schedule they can count on. Through this approach, 1. They get to know each other 2. They learn about the impact their funds are collectively having on the organization 3. They'll see that you've stayed true to the purpose they support.
When you bring members together in-person, feed them. Let them talk over snacks or a meal. Let them meet with the people/animals/areas they are impacting. Show them the impact of their community and let them talk about it amongst themselves.
Designing your affinity program to be a community is your best marketing strategy. It's authentic and requires less salesy-selling. Think about this: What communities are you a part of? What do you like about them? How do you know you're a member? Create something that feels like that!